Duck-Rabbit Duality: Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation


The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another; at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously (perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox) but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

You can only experience the image as it fully, actually, primarily is—as both things at once (or as neither things at once)—by not interpreting it at all. This means letting go of the interpreting mind and, like a kind of vegetable, dumbly witnessing, or just seeing; directly experiencing as your consciousness (rather than through the interpretative mind). The image then becomes impossible and pure, like the weird sound-blobs of foreign words, or like the pure strange form of an object before your mind interprets what it ‘is’, or before your emotions move towards or away from what you want or don’t want.

In the mysterious-to-mind of direct experience (or first impression) I experience two different things at once; not binary either-or, but analogue both-and. This paradox is the source of all great art. My non-interpreting paradoxical unself recognises itself in paradoxical metaphors (‘Juliet is the sun’), melodies, puns, tragi-comedy and mind-stilling masterpieces. Paradox also creates the strange meaning that science moves towards (but can never grasp) in fractal forms, perennial philosophical problems, the fundamental wave-particles of quantum physics1 and the reality that my sense-instruments point towards out there but can never touch; each of which, like the true nature of the image, is a paradoxical pre-interpretative drabbit, or thing in itself.

The thing-in-itself is Immanuel Kant’s term for the inaccessible nature of reality. Kant demonstrated that time and space exist in the mind (although this does not mean they are invented by the mind) and so we can never really know what anything really is ‘in itself’. All we can know is what our minds report to us of what seems to be ‘out there’. This is now a common belief—not to mention a depressing existential reality—that we are all trapped in body-shaped capsules orbiting empty, empty rooms, unintelligible to anyone else, except through faith and only ever able to apprehend the world indirectly, through little more than meter-readings.

Despair still reigns in the scientific mind, and it reigned in Arthur Schopenhauer’s mind too—yet, soon after Kant, Schopenhauer, the greatest ever western philosopher by far, pointed out that there is almost a solution to this atomised misery. He was unable to make the final step, but his work points towards the truth that is one ‘thing in itself’ we can know, for certain; and that is our consciousness of our mind’s meter readings.2 I am a thing in itself, even if my own ideas about me aren’t. This—the mute, pre-thought, animal experience of just experiencing—the objective scientist (or objective religionist) can never understand; because it is not an idea, nor an objective fact, nor even an emotional state, and never can be. It precedes the objective time and space of the mind and subjective emotions, yet is real and can be experienced. Consciousness cannot be understood—as length, breadth and height can be understood, or dictionary definitions, or the news, or ‘what bothers me’—because conscious experience is that which the mind’s meter readings can only ever be of. Consciousness can only be experienced, and when I experience it, I experience the reality of who I am which precedes the comprehensible knowledge I have of being a self in the world.

By self I mean the thinking-wanting-not-wanting entity which isolates timespace objects and knits them into the either subjective or objective world of things, names,  memories, ideas, desires, moodies and so on that I point to when I attempt to explain the world or define myself. This world, however, is not absolutely real, nor is the self which generates and apprehends it. The selfworld is a tool which my consciousness uses and, just as with any other tool or system, when it grows beyond a certain size, or when its momentum builds beyond a certain speed and mass, it begins to demand more energy or awareness than it provides. It begins to take over the user.

Ivan Illich exhaustively detailed how this happens with tools and systems in the objective world. Excessive quanta of energy, excessive speeds, groups that are larger than certain sizes and tools that are so complex they cannot be fixed by ordinary people in ordinary communities cripple men and women and reduce them to a state of infantile dependency. But the same thing happens with the subjective tool, or mechanism, of the self. There was a moment in history (and a moment in each of our individual lives) when this tool of self took over consciousness and began to be understood as ‘me’, generating fear of not me and hostility towards anything which mind or emotions cannot grasp—such as nature, love, darkness, death, loss, paradox, the innocence of children, the difference of outsiders and the thoughtless presence of the wild, all of which became a threat. The extraordinary, paradoxical life that I once perceived in and behind all matter (which I gave fluid name to) became ordinary, non-paradoxical supernatural ‘gods’ (with fixed and superstitiously venerated names), which ‘I’ had to appease through gifts and sacrifices; and all the threats ‘I’ now found itself surrounded with had to be manipulated, controlled or vanquished.

All the problems of civilisation—violence towards women and children, massively over-expanded population centres, private property, endemic aggression toward out-groups and towards the working mass of one’s own group, preposterous architectural vanity projects, exploitation and over-use of the wild, addiction to narcotics, superstition and the species of confused misery we know as ‘the human condition’—began at the same time, in the same place and for the same reason. Around 12,000 years ago, in the Middle East / West Asia, the tool of self (the extrinsic, transcendent male self) grew beyond a critical limit, took charge of consciousness and began calling itself I, leading to the creation of stratified, warlike tribes (proto-Aryans and Semites) which began overrunning the world, overturning its primal cultures (introducing into local myths heroic abstract sky gods, or the monotheist God, which defeated and vanquished female ‘devils’3), corrupting and subjugating its people (particularly intrinsic, imminent modes of feminine awareness), forming class-based cults and, eventually, technologically-advanced civilisations which slowly spread over the surface of the earth.

After several thousand years of the growth of self-in-charge, or ego, direct conscious experience of paradoxical reality was so rare4 and attenuated that a group of unconscious abstract philosophers in ancient Greece (e.g. the nature-, art-, body-, society and children-hating Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) began to wonder what reality really was.5 Unable to comprehend anything but their own mentations they based their speculations on the abstract ideas of disembodied, egoic thought; such as ‘matter’, ‘truth’, ‘beauty’, and the ultimately illusory divisions which thought creates, such as ‘time and space’, ‘subject and object’, ‘nature and culture’ and other duck-rabbits. Confusion, absurdity and an intense resistance to reality6 have prevailed in professional philosophic thought ever since.

Take, for example, Zeno’s arrow paradox—one of the earliest philosophical mind-benders on record—which concludes that because at any moment in time an arrow is neither moving to where it is not (because it is not there) nor moving to where it is (because it is already there) it is, therefore, not moving at all. This absurd—but rationally correct—conclusion, only occurs because the mind abstracts a thinkable idea (the arrow and it’s isolated position in time and space) from what is ultimately an unthinkable still-moving or temporal-timeless paradoxical state. The mind does not invent the position of the arrow, or its existence in time and space, but isolates that aspect of it from an ultimately paradoxical reality—in the same way that mind isolates particles from an ultimately wave-particle monism in the double-slit experiment, or isolates graspable ideas, such as ‘good’ or ‘being’ or ‘truth’ from an ultimately elusive reality (and then fusses over what those words might mean), or, most subtly and perniciously, isolates ‘me’ from an ultimately mysterious selfless experience.

None of this of course is to deny the utility—indeed the indispensable good sense—of picking ducks and rabbits out of the paradoxical thing-in-itself and knitting them together into duck-rabbit systems. Without this ability we’d hardly be human. The point is that if you are incapable of pulling away from yourself, of being conscious of your either-or mentations and emotions, you can, firstly, do nothing but treat ducks and rabbits as real; for there is no other standard by which the word ‘reality’ can be judged. And secondly, you are committed to over-extending into your mind or into yourself—for there is no way to fundamentally comprehend less-than-self or other-than-self. The inevitable result is catastrophic fraudulence.



Who am I? Such a simple question; and yet I keep getting it wrong—because self is asking the question and providing the answer. The mechanism of my self is an organic apparatus (comprised of interrelated parts and animated by calorific power) which is capable of a) manifesting reality as sensations and feelings b) structuring reality into isolated spacetime things and either-or ideas and c) manipulating these things and ideas into systems and structures. When I ask this mechanism ‘who I am’, or ‘what is the truth’, the answer I get is an idea or an emotion, which, sooner or later, turns out to be wrong, ridiculous, contradictory or horrifying. Self tells me (and asserts to others) that I am a definable thing, and therefore isolated, mortal, trapped in a me-shaped prison and alone—in a word, self-ish—a conclusion which, to pre-historic people, children and great artists, is as ludicrous and bizarre as ‘the arrow is not moving’ but which, nevertheless, has driven so-called ‘culture’ for millennia.7

Self has no way of knowing what is unselfish, and so what anything or anyone primarily is. It therefore has no way of knowing why I am here, what death is, what I should do, if there is a God, how I can create beauty, who you are, what consciousness is, what distinguishes humans from animals or how the universe began. Self can never understand what time is, how I can be more creative, less addicted, more spontaneous, less anxious or any other meaningful (which is to say ultimately unscientific) question about what self is not. If the self-machine is questioning itself about what is beyond itself, or where self comes from, no answer it finds, ultimately, is ever going to make sense; and if the self-machine is operating itself, no solution, ultimately, is ever going to work; because everything that self-in-charge says, sees, feels and does is, ultimately, motivated by an inapt, selfish [genetic–mental–emotional8] impulse. Ultimately, the only message a machine can give itself—that can make sense to a machine that creates its own programming, or that attempts to understand itself with itself—is ‘expand, defend and avoid death’.9  Forever.

And this, of course, is what self and the groups it has huddled in for illusory security and power, has been doing ever since it took over conscious awareness and began passing it through its isolating, abstracting, fearing and desiring filters to create our plausible world of struggle, contention and anxiety. Expand, defend and avoid death forever has been the modus operandi of every civilised group of people since what we call civilised history began. It led to agriculture (and to the deforestation of the entire planet and exhaustion of its soils), to the vast inhuman megacults of the Middle East and classical era, to the unquenchable power-craving mania of the world’s celebrated empires, kingdoms and democracies and to, in the modern age, the development of a global institutional system which makes men and women self-conscious, self-referential, self-absorbed, self-believing and self-assertive components in an endlessly proliferating virtual nightmare.

The individual differences and brutal antagonisms of all these various groups—their peripheral styles, marvellous achievements and enormously complex histories—tend to mask their shared motivating and modernising intelligence; the ego of their members. Ego has not only had the same ends since the dawn of history—expand (through conflict and subjugation), experience self (through addictive stimulation) and control or annihilate unselfish reality—but it has used the same means to achieve them; a body of virtual-technical knowledge which has been passed on, appropriated, refined and developed by each succeeding (or concurrent) cult.

These techniques—used to eradicate or control unself (nature, innocence, pain, etc.) and to expand self (through unlimited access to stimulation)—are scientific. Science begins with making reality manageably virtual through the isolation of duck-rabbit ideas and objects from the originating, paradoxical context, which can then be converted into abstractions, such as slaves from communities, natural resources from forests, scientific facts from ‘noise’, and bureaucratic facts, laws and economic money-units from society. These abstractions are predictable, immune to decay and uncertainty, can be stored indefinitely, reproduced perfectly, controlled at will and, most importantly, possessed.

The conversion of the universe into an abstract body of controllable, possessable data further requires the interdependent techniques of mechanisation, social-control, coercion, emotional management, urban-planning, opinion-shaping and the threat of violence, which were all refined into their modern form at the same time as philosophy was: around the 17th century, when institutions, serving a totalitarian system, began to take over the role of reality-management from crude, overtly violent and inefficient priestly or royal authority.

The new methods of social-control focused not on disciplining the body, on hiding criminals away or on physically forcing populations to submit, but on controlling the psyche through propaganda, through bureaucratic surveillance, through the threat of deprivation and through powerful appeals to egoic fears and addictions. This was not achieved through the efforts of Machiavellian princes, but through schools, prisons, hospitals, barracks, factories and organs of mass-media which a) were unconsciously structured to select for obedience and submission b) separated individuals from society c) exposed them to perpetual bureaucratic scrutiny, d) demanded an intense degree of abstraction and rational planning e) divided institutional identity from inner consciousness (and made them mutually antagonistic) f) placed enormous constraints on speech, thought, movement and feeling g) continually stimulated ego through (positive and negative) addictive pornography h) disciplined members to a life of permanent work and never-ending institutional-slavery and i) through taboo and the degradation of words which refer to selfless reality, made it impossible to understand what was happening or directly express dissent without sounding like a nutcase.

This did not happen consciously any more than the invention of superstitious gods, agriculture, classical civilisation or capitalism happened consciously. There was no conscious conspiracy to reduce humanity to a mutually-antagonistic hive of virtual fragments; because ego is unconsciousness: consciousness is a threat.

Consciousness is the threat.

Which means, of course, that consciousness is the cure.


This article was extracted and adapted from The Apocalypedia, but a much fuller account is given in Self and Unself.



  1. Adherents of scientism (scientismists) violently object to any non-specialist use of the terms quantum, reality, paradox, consciousness and so on, stridently asserting the right to determine the ‘correct’ definition of these words, thereby rendering language meaningless to ordinary non-specialists who increasingly find themselves inhabiting a colourless uniquack which they are not specialised enough to be able to fully understand.

    For the scientismist reality is not paradoxical—because his technical, non-paradoxical descriptions of reality make technical, non-paradoxical sense. He is unable to grasp that being able to rationally describe the extraordinarily strange behaviour of quantum reality (in, for example, the famous double-slit experiment, which demonstrates that the most basic elements of reality are both waves and particles) does not make reality unparadoxical, any more than being able to think about consciousness makes consciousness, ultimately, thinkable. When pressed on the reality of what Schrödinger’s equations and so on are pointing to, or what consciousness actually is, scientists unwilling to accept the limits of science, or of thought, will rapidly exit the discussion. Or get very rude.

  2. Schopenhauer was, I dare to say, somewhat confused about consciousness and what he called ‘will’. See here.
  3. e.g. Marduk vs Tiamat in Babylon, Indra vs Vritra in Vedic India, Jahweh vs Satan in Judaism, Zeus vs Typhon in classical Greece. These ego-honouring male-worshipping myths all superseded earlier cosmologies in which the femi-snake had been a benevolent, mysterious creatrix.

    The mono-religion also erased the creative, amoral, paradoxical, boundary-crossing trickster god from original myth and replaced him with a blandly immoral devil.

  4. In most religious traditions there were and are strands of original non-egoic pre-superstitious apperception and genius that persisted. The non-dualist Hinduism of the Upanishads (later Advaita), the Bhagavata and early schools of Tantric Yoga, The Tao Te Ching, some mystic strands of Buddhism (esp. Zen), the teachings of Jesus (without their Paulist-Christian distortions) and [later] a few elements of Sufism all expressed timeless, original pre-egoic experience. Because of this they were usually labelled heresy and persecuted, often brutally. Or they were taken up by selves which enjoy being different.
  5. Only a few hundred years previous to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, so-called ‘irrational’ contemplative philosophers, such as Parmenides and Empedocles, had provided the answer—through something like zen meditation—but by the time of the rationalists, this, along with the illiterate magic of Homer, was now inconceivable. See Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic and Reality.
  6. Professional philosophers never refer to reality, to what something is, or how it might be perceived. Their output focuses entirely on abstractions (such as why things came to be, or how they can be described) and so is intensely abstract and of very little interest to ordinary people.
  7. Implicitly at least—ego is quite happy to use ideas of immortality, togetherness, mystery and whatnot.
  8. The emotional component of ego is the one most frequently ignored; it is possible to be friendly, generous, non-intellectual—even ‘spiritual’—and yet emotionally egotistical. Similarly, it is possible to talk often of oneself, to vaunt one’s own excellence, to be fascinated in oneself and to take (temporary / flamingly flamboyant) charge of a group, while being humble and selfless.
  9. A self-informed machine is inherently incapable of self-sacrifice (aka altruism) unless that sacrifice is either not fundamental (i.e. superficial, such as mere charity), or, as self-informed evolutionists and economists repeatedly stress, for the benefit of similar selves (who share the same genes), those who might reciprocate at a later date or (as a virtuoso display of mating fitness) future partners.